Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen said this week he expects his son Hun Manet to succeed him in office, making the statement, he said, to end speculation about other possible contenders for the job.

Speaking on Wednesday at a ground-breaking ceremony in Sihanoukville, Hun Sen — who has ruled Cambodia for more than 35 years — said that while others may run for election to the post, his son has his full support.

“Who would dare to oppose this? Hun Sen will die someday, so why not let his son take over?” he asked.

Hun Sen said he would not support Cambodian defense minister Tea Banh and interior minister Sar Kheng, both seen by some as possible future candidates, to move up to his own position. They are expected now to continue in their jobs until they retire.

Hun Manet, 44, the eldest son of Hun Sen and his wife Bun Rany, has already been made a three-star general in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces despite his age. He has commanded the country’s army since 2018.

Writing from exile on his Facebook page on Friday, Cambodia opposition leader Sam Rainsy said Hun Sen’s wish to see his son succeed him as prime minister is driven by his fear of facing punishment for the crimes committed during his long rule.

“His plan will fail, though, because Cambodia is a country, not a piece of private property,” Sam Rainsy said.

“No one in Cambodia wants to see this happen.”

Speaking to RFA, a villager from eastern Cambodia’s Tboung Khmum province said that Hun Manet would be unable to win a free and fair election on his own and would have to be installed in office by his father.

“He has a dictatorial style, just like his father,” the villager said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“His ideas are no different from his father’s,” agreed a villager in southeastern Cambodia’s Svay Rieng, who said that Hun Manet had not contributed to political reforms or progress in the country.

Cambodian Youth Network Coordinator Out Latin said the prime minister’s son should make the national interest a priority if elected.

“He hasn’t done much beside manage COVID-19 campaigns, though,” Out Latin said. “He’s no different from the other politicians around today.”

Rift in the ruling party

Mu Sochua, deputy president of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), said that Hun Sen’s announcement backing his son for high office may provoke a split within the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

If Hun Manet comes to power through a rigged election, even more pressure will be brought to bear against Cambodia by foreign countries concerned for the growth of democracy in the Southeast Asian nation.

“I would like Hun Manet to tell his father to leave him alone to compete in free and fair elections, and that if he competes against the CNRP, to let the people make their own decision,” Mu Sochua said.

Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said that Hun Sen has made similar statements supporting his son in the past, and may have done so now to forestall announcements by others looking for political gain.

“I hope that Hun Manet will show us he has abilities different from his father’s,” he said.

Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017 over an alleged plot backed by the United States to topple the government.

The move to ban the CNRP was part of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for the Cambodian People’s Party to win all 125 seats in the country’s July 2018 general election.

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